Caught up in a terrorist attack

West Midlands Police via Wikimedia Commons
W Midlands Police, Wikimedia Commons

I took a long Christmas break, but I wanted to continue my series of posts on terrorism: and this one is about what to do if you’re unlucky enough to be at a location that gets attacked.   What can you do to improve your chances of survival, and the chances of those around you?

Getting out

If you can, get out, get away, any way you can, though a door that’s blocked by a frantic crowd is no exit at all. A side exit, a staff door, a window, a fire door, anything at all. Getting out and then getting away is by far your safest option, of course. It sounds mind-numbingly obvious to say, but it does need to be said.

What if the worst happens, and you’re actually caught up in the nightmare of a terrorist attack? What can you do to improve your chances of survival, and the chances of those around you?

Seizing your chance and staying calm

The quote below is from a BBC report dated 9 December 2015 about the attacks at the Bataclan in Paris:

“After fleeing, Julien Pearce, a Europe 1 radio reporter who witnessed the carnage, said terrified fans had tried to reach the stage by clambering over others cowering on the floor, but the attackers had gunned them down. Pearce said he saw one gunman clearly – a calm youth, without any mask, and a blank expression on his face. Pearce and others managed to flee while the gunmen were reloading their Kalashnikovs.”

The parts I’ve bolded say it all: be vigilant, try to see what’s going on, stay calm and take your chance if you see it. If you panic and run, you might be putting yourself directly into the line of fire. If you’re stuck and you then hide or pretend to be dead – you may see an opportunity, you might be able to get free. Julien Pearce, above, saw the terrorists reloading their guns – he had the knowledge about what that meant, that they wouldn’t be firing for a few seconds, wouldn’t even be looking around them, and he took his chance.

Sometimes getting out isn’t an option: hiding

If you’re hiding in another room in the same building as terrorists, lock the door, don’t talk, just whisper if absolutely necessary. But only if necessary. Use your initiative – in the attacks on the beach in Sousse in Tunisia, some tourists escaped by paddling or swimming and hiding amongst the rocks at the water’s edge. And some of them were then taken aboard boats by locals wanting to help.

Hiding from gunfire or bombs, and protecting yourself from them, are different things. A curtain can hide you, but it won’t protect you. If you can, consider layers of hiding. It was said that in the Bataclan, people hiding in one of the dressing rooms were killed, all except for one person hiding under a coat. I haven’t traced that definitely, so it may be apocryphal, but if you’re trapped and have to hide, then why not double the layers of hiding?

Some people at the Bataclan survived by playing dead, but that’s not actually recommended, for the simple reason that terrorists may walk around the room shooting the bodies, to make sure. They know that people will try to play dead. If it’s your only option, then do it, of course – they might be distracted, they might miss, their weapon might jam, anything.

Don’t make yourself a target by using your phone in an actual attack

One woman caught up in the Paris attacks said that there were actually people in the crowd who took their phones out,  in view of the terrorists, and tried to use them: “they were immediately killed”. I don’t really understand the mindset that thinks using a phone while you’re in the view of terrorists who are shooting people is a good idea. All I can say is, don’t. Don’t do it. If you’re in a locked room, and there’s no noise nearby, then maybe that’s a good time to send an emergency text, as long as your phone is on silent and not on vibrate either – your whereabouts, numbers of casualties, descriptions of the attackers – but otherwise, just keep quiet.

Giving the authorities, the rescuers, all the information you can, is one thing that you absolutely can do, and it could be immensely valuable. But wherever you are, don’t put yourself in danger to send it, whether you’re still in an active situation or you think you’ve managed to get clear. Make sure you’re clear, well away from the zone. And remember that what you’ve heard can be just as valuable as what you’ve seen.

If you’re playing dead or hiding, keep quiet, keep still

In the worst situations, as happened at the Bataclan, you might be lying right next to the bodies of victims of the terrorists. It’s terrifying to even think about imagining what that must be like, but to give yourself the best chance of survival, that’s what you might have to do, and as mentioned above, it’s not a preferred course of action.

Help others if you can

You can best help others by helping them to stay quiet, making eye contact, holding hands, even keeping pressure on a wound. If you had your children with you at such a terrible time, what could you do? Check for wounds, naturally, but what else? They’d be shocked, terrified and upset, of course – but reassuring them by singing to them, or letting them cry, might well bring you all to the attention of the terrorists. On a beach like in Sousse, or in a noisy environment like a football stadium, that’s less likely simply because of the ambient noise – sea, seagulls, wind, the pounding of feet in concrete hallways, the roar of a crowd, whatever, but in a closed environment, it could be deadly to make noise. I have no easy solution for comforting a child, I’m sorry to say. I wish I did. A silent physical connection, being held, is all there is.

Suicide bombers and attackers want to kill

Playing dead or waiting to see what happens often doesn’t work when you’re being attacked by suicide bombers: they’re not temporarily preserving their hostages so that they can negotiate with the authorities, their only aim is almost always to kill. That’s it. If you don’t have a way out then playing dead, and hopefully hiding while you do it, is the least-worst option; but both government advice and common sense say the same thing – if you can get out, do it, right away.

What about fighting back? Only if you can’t run any further, and only if your hiding place has been found. It’s the very last choice of all, only one step up from death, quite frankly, and then only because suicide bombers aren’t interested in taking prisoners. If you’re actually found by one in spite of your precautions, and you do decide to fight back – you might get lucky. If you’re only faced with one attacker … if you manage to hit them … if they fall over and bust their head … maybe. Maybe.

My instinct is to say “play along, and wait for your chance to get away”, and that’s probably what a lot of people think. I don’t know how helpful that is when faced with modern terrorists.

But if you don’t do anything when discovered, you could well die anyway, that’s the stark reality, when face to face with a fanatic who wants to kill as many people as possible who are like you, and then die as well. I keep thinking of United 93, the plane that was hijacked on 9/11 but crashed in Pennsylvania before it reached the terrorists’ goal. It’s clear that the passengers fought back, and they nearly won. I don’t know all of the publicly available details of that day, but I know that they worked together to save themselves and the terrorists’ other intended victims; I’d like to think that I’d take part in that effort, if I was in that situation.

But not every terrorist is a suicide bomber

That’s true, they’re not, even nowadays. There are copycats and opportunists who haven’t had the training, and a few suicide bombers are reluctant to follow through when it comes to it.  Or sometimes the suicide bombers are waiting to corral all the hostages together before they shoot them, for whatever twisted “reasons” they have for attacking like this in the first place. It’s impossible to know before the event. If you’re caught and not killed immediately, is there anything you can do? Not much: most of the advice I’ve found seems to be the classic group hostage advice of attracting as little attention as possible: do as you’re told, keep your eyes down and don’t make eye contact, don’t stand out, just wait. If you can move, you might want to edge away from choke points and even from windows – if the authorities storm the building, tear gas through the windows is the least you can expect.

Do you have specialist training that could be used in this situation? That could be a lifesaver, for you and the others with you, but only use it if you’re up to date and you’re sure it’s relevant. You’re betting your life, and the lives of others, that it will be so.

Not directly involved? you still need to take precautions

If you’re near an attack but not directly involved, don’t try to find out what’s happening – get away as fast as possible, and help others to do so – the attackers may start attacking people on the streets, there may be additional attacks from other sources, and you may well get caught up in the response or obstruct the emergency services.

If you’re in a building close to the site of a terrorist attack, keep away from the windows, and if you can go to the other side of your building, to rooms that look onto another street, then do that.  If you can’t do that, consider going into the corridor, or into your bathroom.  If that’s not helpful either, then at least close any big open windows, if you can do it without endangering yourself by putting yourself on view through the window, maybe by pulling it shut with a broom handle.  Stephane Hache was killed in his apartment next to the Bataclan – he was taking cover, but the poor man was killed by a ricochet, according to news reports at the time.

Don’t be distracted by trying to use your phone. By all means, try to send a text to a loved one to let them know you’re safe, but don’t send a text to all your contacts, or make a video call. In the event of a major incident, the networks will be either overloaded, or deliberately down, so any time spent on the phone is time wasted and could be better spent removing yourself from the immediate situation or, even better, planning your next move.

The advice seems to be, get somewhere safe and stay there, until you get official advice that to do otherwise is safe. The Charlie Hebdo killers were on the run for three days, and were 85km from Paris when they were finally surrounded and killed. Anyone between Paris and Dammartin, the village where they went to ground, could potentially have been another victim. It may be impossible or inappropriate to hole up for that length of time, but you should be aware of the potential danger, so that your decision on your course of action takes into account as much as possible.


Some of this sounds pretty gloomy: the thing is, if you’re caught up in a mass terrorist event, especially in an enclosed space, you can’t be sure that even your best efforts will be enough to ensure your survival. That’s the truth. But you can survive, and you can increase the odds in your own favour, that’s also the truth. Be one of the survivors.


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